The second round begins Monday night, and the Spurs may be in a bit of trouble. But it's not for the reasons you may think. If you're a Spurs fan, forget the blind optimism wrought by team loyalty, just for a moment. Forget that San Antonio has owned the Suns for.....ever, in postseason play.
But for a few pieces, this Suns team is the same as previous installments in name only. The only Phoenix holdovers from the previous meeting between these two teams are Nash, Amare, Barbosa and Grant Hill. Unlike the Mavericks who didn't exactly streak into the postseason, the Suns head into the playoffs on a legitimate tear. They went 14 and 2 to close the regular season. The two losses both coming away from home to playoff teams. The squads they defeated during the streak include playoff teams like Utah, Denver, Portland...and San Antonio. Those erroneously thinking this series is sure to go the way of previous meetings, with the Spurs able to score at will against the Suns, should take a look at the Suns defense to close the season. The Suns held their last ten opponents to a very un-Phoenix like 44% shooting, good for the 6th best mark in the league, and tied with...San Antonio. Trust me, I could go on about the obstacle that this year's Suns team presents. I could elaborate on their league leading 41% three point attack (a defensive weakness for San Antonio) and such.
But this isn't about Phoenix.
As if the newly retooled Suns aren't enough to worry about, the Spurs have other problems.
Despite all the praise heaped upon the basketball gods for ushering the big three safely into the postseason unharmed, these guys aren't looking quite right.
Case in point, Tony Parker. The line he put up in the decisive game six , 10 points on 5 of 12 shooting, 8 assists and 0 turnovers, would look great....if it belonged to a backup point guard like Steve Blake or Luke Ridnour. Tony isn't right, despite the month long hiatus a broken hand forced him to take. Though the hand healed, it's safe to assume that perhaps the plantar fasciitis that plagued him early in the season has not completely healed.
Now, Tony certainly had a good series, shooting 47%, scoring 16 points per game and dishing 5.7 assists per game. The thing is, those numbers look more than similar (nearly identical) to the ones he put up in the regular season ,49% shooting, 16 points per game, 5.7 assists per contest, when the plantar fasciitis was something he was forced to admit was bothering him. A healthy Tony would have shredded this Dallas defense with relentless and lightning quick forays into the paint, rather than the midrange jumpers he used as his main weapon in this series. Last postseason, Tony averaged about 29 points per game against Dallas along with some ungodly field goal percentage. Sans plantar fasciitis, Parker also averaged 22 points per game while shooting 51% in that 2009 regular season. Despite the fact Tony isn't required to carry the team this year the way he had to in that season, you get the sense that his reduction in paint points may be related to sore feet rather than the oppositions defense or deferring to other scoring options.
Manu has not been quite the same thus far since breaking his nose, but who can blame him? Surely even Supermanu plays with the lingering concern that a blow to his mending nose can possibly reduce him to a helpless spectator for anything from a few plays, to an entire game or two. The decision to forego wearing a mask in order to preserve his court vision doesn't exactly inspire confidence that the enemy won't eventually try something sinister. You could see Dallas trying to do just that in the latter stages of the series, from a high elbow thrown by Sean Marion on a post up attempt, (catching an astute Manu in the jaw), to dirk swinging his elbows high and wide in the vicinity of Manu's face while the big German was securing a rebound. Perhaps Dirk secretly hoped one of his sharp elbows would reconnect with Manu's nose. Am I being paranoid? Perhaps, but I don't think so. One can never be too sure when the stakes are this high. Manu's nose mends by the day and he will eventually be completely healed, possibly even at some point during these same playoffs. Moreover, Ginobili's warrior mentality has allowed him to play through the injury and continue making clutch plays. But it does little to ease my worry for the San Antonio *talisman.
Tim Duncan, the ageless wonder. He lost weight over the off season in order to ease the burden on his tendonosis afflicted knees. So far he has exceeding our greatest expectations, looking far better this postseason than he did against Dallas just last year. In that series, he ended with a 30 points effort, but those who watched the game know the points were uncharacteristic, coming largely from jump shots. This was a stark contrast to the ruthlessly efficient runners and hooks he used to dispose of the Dallas big men this year. But honestly, is it fair to expect Duncan to keep up such a torrid pace over the course of every seven game series? You could see the numbers begin to trail off in the latter stages of this year's series.
Relying on Duncan to bail us out every night is a recipe for failure. The longer a series goes, the more Duncan is likely to slow down. Fortunately he has 3 days of rest before attempting to slow down the one in a million specimen known as Amare Stoudemire.
Yes, the big three aren't exactly 100% but at least they are together again for the first time in a long time. How long? Not since 2007, the last year San Antonio brought home a title.
Not that having the big three together guarantees anything.
In the 2004 season, Los Angeles sent the big three home in the second round. To this day, many blame the outcome on Derek Fisher's controversial shot with .4 seconds left. The truth of the matter is the Spurs had no business winning that game anyway, Duncan himself had hit a nigh impossible shot just moments before, a long jumper with the clock winding down and the behemoth known as Shaq bearing down on him. The spurs lost that series because Tim Duncan didn't have enough help, more importantly the Lakers were simply the better team that season. Karl Malone put Tony on the deck in that series, and Tony was never the same. (This season's incarnation of Tony would have taken the ball straight into Malone's chest on the subsequent play, then RJ or Blair would have given the mailman a taste of his own medicine) As for Manu, he wasn't quite the closer back then he has since become.
Another year when the big three just wasn't enough was 2006. Then the Spurs were forced to deal with a talented and motivated Mavericks squad that sent the spurs home after a legendary series, despite the presence of a healthy big three. Again, many point to a certain ill advised foul by Manu Ginobili as the reason why the Spurs lost. But the fact is, he had placed San Antonio in a position to win with his late game heroics. What Manu giveth, Manu taketh away. I know that, you know that, and Pop knows that.
Indeed, the big three have in some instances not been enough, even when healthy. And this season, whether its because of a sore foot, nose or knee, the three have at times appeared to be a little less than 100%. While they are still bound to have more than a few big game performances this postseason, they will need allot of help.
Fortunately for them, change has come this year, not just for the Suns but the Spurs as well.
The difference for the Spurs this year? The San Antonio triumvirate doesn't have to play at an MVP level every game in order for the Spurs to win. The intrepid three have the most help they have ever had.
If George Hill continues to play the way he has been, the opposition is going to have a very hard time dealing with the Spurs, even if their stars are having an off night. Now that he comes off the bench, Tony Parker affectionately refers to himself as Manu Junior. Yet it is George Hill who perhaps better embodies that moniker. Like a miniature Manu, Hill has regularly been making clutch defensive plays, hitting big threes, making clutch free throws and driving into the paint. He also appears to be getting stronger as the playoffs progress.
The acquisition of Mcdyess toughened up the interior defense and gave San Antonio's backcourt a highly efficient offensive threat in the form of that accurate midrange jumper. It acts as a huge pressure valve the San Antonio guards can resort to should the lanes suddenly disappear.
And Richard Jefferson, instrumental in the game 2 and 4 victories against Dallas, could be an even bigger factor against Phoenix. In the last two regular season games against the Suns, he averaged 18.5 points and 62% shooting. His power plays at the rim could help to put Amare in the only spot where he can't hurt the Spurs, on the bench.
San Antonio possesses other pieces yet, wild cards like rebounding rookie, DeJuan Blair, and floor spacing three point specialist Matt Bonner, guys capable of changing the game at a moment's notice.
On at least one occasion so far, the big three for San Antonio in a playoff win have not featured Parker, Manu or Duncan.
For proof, look no further than pivotal game 4 in San Antonio. Had the Spurs lost, they would be staring at a two game a piece stalemate, with game 5 at Dallas. But fortunately the big three were there to carry the Spurs to victory.
The name of those three? George Hill, (29 points), Richard Jefferson (15 points on 66% shooting) and DeJuan Blair (7 points on 75% shooting, 7 rebounds, along with intangible energy and defense off the bench in only 12 minutes).
Having a healthy or close to healthy big three is not enough anymore, the Spurs will need their role players to win some games for them. And as of right now, it looks like these guys are ready to help take San Antonio very far into the postseason.
These are the reasons San Antonio will eliminate Phoenix and continue on their quest to make basketball history.
*Talisman: Something producing apparently magical or miraculous effects. Often in soccer a player is deemed a talisman for the team. Think Ronadlinho for Barcelona or Henry when he was with Arsenal. With that player the team can win, without that player they will often lose.